Last year, Robbie Robertson played “The Weight” with musicians around the world, including Ringo Starr, Japanese guitar virtuoso Char, Congo soul singer Mermens Mosengo, and others. It’s been streamed more than 8 million times on YouTube. Many of those streams happened in the past month; Mark Johnson, co-founder of Playing for Change, who made the video, suspects it became “a tool for people in isolation.”
For their first video since “The Weight,” Johnson and his team chose the Cuban classic “Chan Chan,” popularized by Buena Vista Social Club in 1997. Johnson has recorded music in more than 50 countries with Playing for Change, which has 15 music schools across 11 countries. “There’s just a few songs that you hear performed all over the world on the street. One of them is Bob Marley’s ‘Three Little Birds.’ And another one is ‘Chan Chan.’ I’ve just heard it sung in so many cultures, usually when I’m traveling to Spanish-speaking countries. So we thought, ‘Well, why don’t we try to take this track from Cuba, and go around the world and add musicians? Because we knew it’s a song that people sing, sort of as an anthem all over the world.” Johnson and his team started in Cuba, tracking down local legends such as Teté Caturla Garcia and Pancho Amat, before traveling everywhere from the U.S. to Mali to Lebanon to finish the track.
Here, Johnson talks about the extremely lucky circumstance that led them to scoring a Cuban guitar legend, why he took a risk on traveling to Beirut for the video, and more.
The video is almost shot like a movie.
Yeah, this one was a little more cinematic. It’s kind of the nature of the song. It was an exciting song to take around the world.
How did it come together?
Basically, you know, all of our videos are about connecting people, and showing how music transcends the things that divide us in life, like politics and borders. The idea here is for people to just look at how well we all get along when the music plays. So that was the theme here for “Chan Chan.”
A few years ago, I worked with Jackson Browne when he produced a version of “Guantanamera” around the world. That song had featured like 70 Cuban musicians living in different parts of the world, and uniting them all back together through a song. It gave me a much deeper understanding of the amazing music and the culture that comes from Cuba. And so “Chan Chan” was really an extension of that experience, and wanting to work on a project that starts in Cuba: “OK, let’s take a great song from Cuba. Let’s add all different musical instruments from different cultures and unite them all together.” So the Cuban tres, sort of their Cuban guitar; a Middle Eastern oud, the Middle Eastern guitar; and then a kora in West Africa — combining all these different elements kind of helps take the song to another level, and introduces all these different instruments and shows the world how well they work together.
Who was the first artist you called?
It was amazing. We went to Cuba with the crew, and we had no real plan as to who we were going to record. But we did know about the first musician you see in the video, his name is Pancho Amat and he is a living legend considered to be the greatest tres player in the world. And so our dream was to find Pancho, and we went to Cuba, and we couldn’t find him. We were trying and trying, and nobody could get ahold of him. And one day, we’re literally walking down a side street in Havana, and there’s Pancho walking into a cafe. So we just went in there, we introduced ourselves to him and his wife. We explained what Playing for Change is all about. And within a few hours, we were set up in a plaza, recording and filming him on the tres. So it was really sort of serendipity and destiny. Once we had Pancho playing the song, we knew musicians around the world would love to play on it. And it also really kind of captured that Cuban magic that we wanted to start this track.
Tell me about Teté Caturla Garcia, who is so great when she starts singing.
Yeah, she was 78 years young when we filmed her on that balcony in Havana, and I have chills every time I hear her sing. She’s just one of the best singers I’ve ever heard. But also it’s her energy, her feeling of joy, that comes through the track. You just feel this invitation to come and join her on the journey. In all my years of recording music, she’s one of the greatest singers and people I’ve ever met. It’s such an honor to work with her. The joy of life comes through her voice, and it lifts us all up to a place where we can see how music connects hearts and humanity around the world. So between having her and Pancho, we knew we were off to a great start. And so that really gave us the foundation from which to build and create a song around the world.
Is she still singing?
Yeah, she’s still singing. And she’s a legend there. The thing about Cuba is when you go there, there’s so much joy intrinsic in the culture. And I don’t know that a lot of the world knows that because of politics. So when you see all of that joy, it’s infectious. And it reminds you of the spirit of music and community, and just making people’s lives better day by day through songs. She represents that at one of the highest levels. And the thing about “Chan Chan” is that some of the videos we’ve done, they’re really big ensembles. You can add choirs and string sections and stuff. For this song, we wanted to take a more-subtle approach. Because it was more about the power of what each person was playing and singing individually, and then how that collectively could transcend into something bigger than themselves.
On your first trip to Cuba, where you recorded Pancho, who were you there to see at the time?
We were there to just start to record some new songs around the world. And we didn’t know who we were going to find. We did hire a musical guide. And then they introduced us to everybody. In this case, it was the piano player, Roberto Carcassés. He is a really great Cuban piano player and really dialed into the scene there. Roberto was the guy who set us up with a lot of the other musicians. And that kind of gave us the traditional Cuban feel that we were looking for. I had heard something about Buena Vista Social Club originally wanting to incorporate Afro musicians, so it was more of an Afro-Cuban project, but that never happened. So I felt like, “Listen, we have a music school in the village of Kirina, where some of the best [kora] players in the world come from. So we knew we’d have a chance to go add some incredible West African musicians. So after Cuba, we went to visit our school in Mali, and that’s when we were able to add Mamadou Diabaté on the kora. And that’s when the video really started to become a Playing for Change project, where it was now not about just a traditional culture, but about merging cultures.
The other thing that happened was the Playing for Change Band — we were booked on a gig in Lebanon, in Beirut. And I remember going to the website, to check whether you could travel there, and it was like a flashing red light: “Don’t travel there.” You know, it’s always like that. And we have to represent and take care of all these musicians. So we want to have their safety. But we talked to the promoter, and he said, “Listen, people come here all the time and play concerts — it’s really safe.” So we decided to bring the whole band. And that was an amazing experience, because it just shows you how fear is the enemy. Because if you break through the fear, the next thing you know, we’re all having dinner in a house, with little kids climbing on the table. And it’s just like you’re at home, but you’re in Beirut, Lebanon. And while we were there, we were able to meet this amazing oud master, and the oud is sort of serving the Middle East version of the Cuban tres in Cuba. So it was sort of an opportunity to go to these places that really people don’t know much about, like Cuba is stereotyped for its politics, just like Lebanon and Beirut. But when you get into it, the music, the people all over the world, they’re all the same. You want peace and families and a good life. And so these songs give us an opportunity to travel to these places.
And so you have some of these tracks ready to go, like, the basic tracks that you can just decide to put someone on if you like what they’re doing?
Yeah, we usually travel with multiple songs at the same time, so that we can find a best way to succeed with each artist based on where would they best fit.
How is the original track made? Does your Playing for Change Band record the basic track that you then add on to?
No, I think “Chan Chan” was started by Roberto on the piano. First thing we recorded was the piano, and then the tres the next day. So the tres player would just hear the piano player. And then the next musician would just hear whoever was before them. And then slowly over time, it builds. And one of the coolest parts of “Chan Chan” from Buena Vista is the trumpet solo. To me, it was one of the greatest trumpet solos I’d ever heard. So I really didn’t want to try to re-create that because it’s already there. And that’s when we thought about New Orleans, where you can also have some of the great horn players in the world, but they also play with the mute. So you could create a really cool, sort-of Louis Armstrong horn vibe. Many years ago, when we first started Playing for Change, back in 2000, we made a film called A Cinematic Discovery of Street Musicians. And I had filmed an 11-year-old boy, he was a virtuoso trumpet player. His name is Chantz Powell. He was 11 years old. And he was just performing on the street to make money for him and his mom. And he was amazing. He ended up going on and getting a huge record deal. I had never heard from him, for about 15 years. And then when it came time to thinking about the trumpet solo, I just remembered him: “I wonder what he’s doing?” So I reached out to chance, and he was in New Orleans. So the crew and I went down there, put headphones on him, and had him play the solo with the mute and playing it with so much soul and a lot of space — he really just kind of took the track to the next level. So again, it’s just about kind of living inside each of these songs, and trying to figure out how we can add different musicians and create something that’s got a global human feel to it.